January allotment in the sunshine

My lovely allotment is just a few minutes’ walk up the road. Most days  I can walk up there with a trug and trowel to garden or gather food, but when I am harvesting a lot of vegetables or need to use more tools than I can carry, I use my car.

Yesterday was one of those days which meant several trips backwards and forwards to the car, loading up. After driving to the allotment, it is to-ing and fro-ing again unloading and of course the same – but this time with crates of vegetables too – on the way home!

Sometimes it is possible to walk there pushing a wheelbarrow with the tools of course, however I always need to pay consideration to my joints (I have osteoarthritis) and be sensible about what load it is physically possible for me to push safely. This was definitely a car day.

A few days ago I noticed that one of my parsnips had been gnawed by a Something – probably a rat. I was planning to harvest some parsnips, leaving the gnawed one as a sacrifice which would hopefully stop them nibbling the other parsnips, dig up all of the horseradish, finally clear the sweetcorn stalks and beanpoles and mulch the garlic and broad bean beds. It was a particularly beautiful day. Hanging out the washing as the frost melted, the bright sunshine and vivid blue skies full of the promise of spring (a bit too early, I know…) I felt energised, creating an over ambitious List of Things To Do, all to be accomplished in just one morning…

With secateurs, gloves, a trowel and my iphone (for photographs) in the car, along with several plastic crates – all rescued from skips – my spade, rake and manure fork, I was ready. My car is quite small, however with the seats folded down it makes a useful little van. When I was looking for a new car after my old one finally was beyond repair a main criteria was that I could fit my hoe in it! I can’t comfortably fit my three young adult children in there which makes long family journeys difficult, but the tools? No problem!

Unfortunately, this is what I saw on the parsnip bed:

Distressingly, every row had some damage. The rat either has a huge appetite or had invited some friends over for dinner. I have never had this sort of damage on my allotment before. Looking around the other allotments there, I could find no one else growing parsnips so was unable to compare mine. Perhaps rats in this area have a particular fondness for parsnip, perhaps the numbers have increased significantly there due to the mild winter, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, I decided that the best thing to do was clear the entire bed, bring the parsnips home and store them here.

To remove my no dig parsnips, I push the spade into the ground in front or behind the row – or both if they are really big – and wiggle the spade. Usually the parsnips can then be easily pulled out. Some go so far down that they need a lot more spade wiggling. This method means minimum soil disturbance (which benefits all of the soil life) or damage to the parsnip. As very little of the heavy clay beneath the surface comes up, it is easy to make the bed ready for the next planting using my feet or the rake to smooth and firm the soil – after clearing the whole bed I could still walk and work on the bed without compacting the soil or getting large clumps stuck on my boots . The allotments are on heavy clay, it is winter and Somerset is usually rather damp, so if I had dug it over whilst removing the parsnips it would have made the bed impossible to walk on – and therefore more awkward to plant or sow there – for months.

Here is a parsnip beside the hole it had made growing, along with a piece of sticky clay which I had removed from the root. This bed was mulched last winter with an inch or so of well rotted cow  manure, into which I sowed the seeds last March. As you can see, the parsnip grew straight right down into the clay and you can see how smoothly it came out.

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The worm at the bottom of the hole came from a worm home in the side of the soil ‘wall’ made by the parsnip. The smaller parsnip still to be removed had grown around this larger one – I hadn’t thinned the seedlings much, so a few grew ‘cuddling’ their friends.

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And here is one of the crates of parsnips – altogether I harvested about twice this amount. That is not a lawn in the background, it is the allotment next to mine. Even though there is a long waiting list for allotments in Bruton, this was totally neglected this year, such a waste.

 

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After harvesting the parsnips, I dug up as much of the horseradish as I could. When I was given the horseradish plant around 8 years ago, I didn’t know it was invasive and planted it in the same bed as other perennials, rhubarb and globe artichoke. This plant has been a constant reminder ever since to always read up about something one is unfamiliar with and find out if it is invasive. Often you read in the media so-called gardening advice suggesting ‘just pop it in and see – experiment’… No! First find out something about the plant.

As it is on a mission to take over, I have decided to mulch this area with plastic for a whole year at least. Hopefully that will be enough time to kill off the horseradish, I don’t know yet. Much as I love horseradish and have many uses for it, I would rather grow veg for dinners in these beds and have a large plant, contained in a huge container on concrete at home, which provides plenty of roots for my family. I am going to mulch around the rhubarb and artichoke as I want to keep them, but will move the lemon balm. On a cheerier note, I have traded quite some of this horseradish, including once for a three course meal with wine!

Having a largish area of plastic isn’t exactly ideal on an allotment, it will cover 2 beds, however I will make the most of it and minimise the temporary waste of productive ground by getting this year’s well rotted manure delivered onto it and also growing vegetables in large tubs on top of the polythene.

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You can see where I have temporarily stored some cloche hoops, poles and netting in this photograph – they will be also moved onto the plastic-mulched area until needed. The two water butts are mine, then beyond are other allotments. There is quite a bit of difference in the colour of the soil where I was digging up the horseradish and where it has been undisturbed – the old horseradish patch is now quite sticky.

Clearing the beanpoles next was a quick and easy, the final job clearing two beds of sweetcorn stalks which really should have been removed last year more difficult. The roots were mostly too firm to pull out, so I cut the stalks and chopped them into 6 inch pieces for speedier composting with the secateurs . By the time I’d finished chopping up all of the stalks (not forgetting all of that harvesting of root veg) the compost bin was full and my back hurting, so I have left the last part for the weekend – I think it will need more spade-wiggling to get them out – and loaded up the car.

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This took quite a while – that large crate of parsnips was heavy to carry as was the sack full of horseradish. Old compost sacks are very useful for lining the boot to protect the upholstery, I also use old sheets for this purpose. Picnic rugs, with waterproof bottoms, make good car boot liners too. I’m going to wash the parsnips in a large trug at home, scrub off the soil and store – damaged ones in the fridge with the chewed parts chopped off and the rest in the ‘mud room’ which is cool where they should last for some time. Fortunately I love parsnips – cooked, raw, in cakes – yum!

I shall be busy in the kitchen too using the horseradish in various recipes including  horseradish vodka and medicinal Fire Cider.

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The allotment after gardening there yesterday. In the front is a 2 year old manure pile, then garlic, leeks, a perennial broccoli (you can’t see the broadbeans behind the leeks in this photo) and then the remaining sweetcorn stalks before the bed of purple sprouting broccoli

Very soon it will be time to start sowing again. Almost all of my seeds have arrived, a very few still to come which is just as well as I have a lot! Seeds are stored in two drawers in my study – the chest of drawers was my brother’s changing table almost 40 years ago when he was a baby, useful rather than beautiful. I organise seeds into various categories – flowers, herbs, peas, beans, salad leaves, unusual greens and shoots, weird roots, spring onions, radish (I have a lot of varieties of both, hence their own little box), vegetables and annual fruits in alphabetical order, a box where I put seeds about to be sown  (e.g. aubergines, parsnips) and strange plants I am trying out this year. Varieties are kept together using elastic bands, usually in order of when they are sown. It is a way that works for me. Silica gel packets are scatted in the boxes to help absorb any moisture.

As you can see, I buy from several different seed companies and some are seeds I (or Charles) have saved. Most of these seeds will fortunately be viable for a few years. Exciting times ahead, another year of growing food.